Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Megan Campisi's The Widow Spy imagines a female battle of wills in Civil War-era Washington, DC

Beginning on August 23, 1861, a consequential Civil War battle is being fought inside a well-appointed home in Washington, DC. On one side are former mill girl Kate Warne, Secret Service head Allan Pinkerton’s first female detective, and her fellow agents. On the other is socialite Rose Greenhow, a crafty widow credited with siphoning intelligence that won the Battle of Manassas for the Confederacy.

As Rose sits under house arrest with her youngest daughter, Kate must quickly locate her cipher key before the rebels discover Rose has been compromised. Their mental showdown feels increasingly taut as Kate attempts to soften the widow and exploit her weaknesses while concealing her own secrets, such as her Irish origins and forbidden attraction to her Black colleague.

The characters are richly layered and the mid-nineteenth-century atmosphere completely tangible. Campisi (Sin Eater, 2020) makes an exciting return to historical fiction with a new tale of moral quandaries and the hidden talents of women as Kate revisits episodes from her traumatic past and ponders what type of person she wants to become.

The Widow Spy was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on April 9th; I wrote this review for Booklist's April 15th issue. 

Above: Rose O'Neal Greenhow with her youngest daughter and namesake, "Little" Rose, at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862 (public domain).

Kate Warne, also, is a historical figure, with little definitively known about her earlier life before she joined the Pinkertons. She also stars as the central character in Greer Macallister's historical novel Girl in Disguise (2017).  

Unlike Megan Campisi's first novel, The Widow Spy is mainstream historical fiction, not alternate history. Read also my review of Sin Eater and interview with the author about her debut, from 2020.


  1. This looks great, Sarah. I am watching the Apple series "Manhunt" right now (about Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth), so the timing is good for me. Thanks!

    1. I haven't come across that series yet, but have a trial to AppleTV - I may have to check that out. Thanks!